copyright Nat Finkelstein

copyright Nat Finkelstein

Who Shot Rock & Roll
A Photographic History, 1955–Present

By Gail Buckland

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BEHIND THE SCENES WITH

ELIZABETH MURRAY FINKELSTEIN

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Nat Finkelstein, American photographer and photojournalist, was born in Brooklyn in 1933. Starting off as a student of the legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Alexey Brodovitch, Finkelstein worked for agencies like The Black Star and PIX. However Finkelstein is probably best known for his work with Andy Warhol, as his ‘unofficial’ in- house photographer, which is nowadays recognized as some of the best photographic work of the 20th century. Since then, Finkelstein has exhibited his work worldwide; among many other locations, his photographs are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, and The Andy Warhol Foundation, New York; The Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Nat Finkelstein passed away in early October 2009 in his home in Upstate New York. He was 76 years old.

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Elizabeth Murray Finkelstein discusses her husband’s work, Velvet Underground and Friends, 1966, selected for publication in Who Shot Rock & Roll by Gail Buckland (Knopf, October 2009, $40).

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I can imagine you must have mixed emotions, with Nat having recently passed, and the responsibility of running his archive falling to you just as Who Shot Rock & Roll launches. How do you feel about being the spokesperson on behalf of Nat and his work?

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Elizabeth Murray Finkelstein: Nat and I had a pact through our marriage: I would protect both his art and his legacy. Because he was significantly older than me—he died at 76, I’m 35—we knew the reality of the situation. I would live to carry on his work, a responsibility I take very seriously.

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When I met Nat, he was living in a horrible situation, in a gross apartment under the BQE, depressed and with few prospects for the future. I looked around through this squalid place and there was his artwork. I recognized genius and asked him, “You did all THIS?” And Nat answered, “Yeah, but nobody cares.” He broke my heart. With that, I made it our mission to get his life together and to re-establish him as an ARTIST. I think we did OK.

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This project really brings my relationship to Nat full circle, as it was through his work at The Factory in the mid 60s that we first connected. Although neither you nor I were there for it, Nat sure as hell was, and though he is gone, his work continues to live on. Can you describe for us how Nat felt about photographing the Factory and its denizens?

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Ironically, perhaps, Nat and Andy Warhol had a common background. Both were children of the Depression, of working class families, who found their voice through their vision.  Nat respected Andy – I think Nat knew where Andy was coming from, as an artist and maybe also as a person. Nat was a well-established photojournalist in the 1960s, and Andy knew Nat’s name through photo credits in magazines.    When they met, both probably recognized the mutual benefit. I’ve reminded a few haters that it was Andy who wanted Nat at the Factory. And Nat knew a good story when he saw one.

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There were qualities of the Factory that Nat really loved:  brilliant art, beautiful women, and the Velvet Underground. These are the subjects on which he focused his camera. But he believed the Factory ultimately represented the soft underbelly of the American underground. In 1965, Nat was also photographing, and organizing anti-Vietnam War and civil rights activity—ugly scenes of young and old violently oppressed by the powers that were. In contrast, Nat said that political struggle was of no concern at the silver Factory, where celebrity for its own sake was a common goal. He derisively called the arch-scenesters “the Satellites”—those who existed only to revolve around a bigger star.

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Nat described the Velvet Underground as “the psychopath’s Rolling Stones.” Please elaborate…

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The Psychopath’s Rolling Stones… Ha! In 1966, Nat used that phrase in his book proposal for the Andy Warhol Index. He was a huge fan of the Rolling Stones, so he wasn’t being derogatory or demeaning—he was being pithy. However, Nat told me that Lou Reed was totally offended when he read this. Obviously, the VU were doing their own thing, but Lou thought the comparison to the Stones diminished their uniqueness. And so, as per Nat, Lou Reed responded, “The three worst people in the world are Nat Finkelstein and two speed dealers.” Touché! Nat claimed Lou never forgave him for the “psychopath” quote. That’s sad, because Nat truly cared for the VU as people, as individuals. He was proud of their accomplishments. But he felt he had been iced out—dismissed or betrayed. In the last years of Nat’s life, Eden Cale, daughter of John, became our very close friend. Nat and John reconnected through Eden, which meant a lot to Nat.

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Critic Ian Johnston describes Nat’s photo of the Velvet Underground as “…among the best ever portraits of a rock band, exuding sleaze, menace, and decadent glamour.” What are your thoughts on this image, and how well it has stood the test of time?

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Nat has maybe 1,000 photographs of the VU—everything from group shots, to performances, to candid portraits of the individuals. As a photographic study of a rock & roll band—a body of work—it may be unparalleled in scope.

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The image in Who Shot Rock & Roll was from a group portrait session; we have a few contact sheets from this shoot, which we referred to as “VU with Vox.” As for the far-reaching influence of these photos, I’m reminded of an email we got several years ago. A VU fan from England, I believe, wrote to ask if Nat had any photographs of the Vox speaker by itself. The fan wanted to know if a legend about the alteration of the Vox knobs was true, and if Nat had photographic evidence. Nat’s response was, “Do you want to buy a photograph?” To which the fan responded, “I just want to know if the story is true.”

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I was a fan of the Velvet Underground long before I knew Nat Finkelstein. I didn’t know Nat’s name. I certainly didn’t know he would be my husband—but I knew his pictures. Nat’s photographs are the visual component to the VU story. Despite the arguments and estrangements, Nat and the VU are inextricably linked in history. As long as the Velvet Underground is relevant, which I imagine is forever, Nat’s photographs will remain relevant, too. Great art is timeless.

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